Don't underestimate underdog pride
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
At the halfway point in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Regular Season, there are five teams with one victory or less who would seem to be down to their final chances to reach the Top 16. I may be an incurable backer of underdogs, but I am not about to predict that any of them will end up in the Final Four next May. Nor am I ready to go out on a limb and tell you that KK Zagreb, Zalgiris Kaunas, Union Olimpija, Asseco Prokom or Belgacom Spirou will be playing in the Top 16 after the new year. But this much I will risk saying: one or more of these teams will win a game no one expected them to win, and it will affect the Top 16 races in their groups. One reason I say this is that the pride that causes teams to fight their way into the Euroleague doesn't disappear even when they are mathematically eliminated. Prokom was 0-5 last year before beating Khimki, which missed the Top 16 because of that loss, and Caja Laboral away, forcing that team to win three consecutive survival games. Spirou was 0-4 last season and won three of its next four on pride, playing to advance all the way to Week 9. Union Olimpija as a club has a history of knocking down giants on pride alone, most notably when its Top 16 road win in the 2001-02 season at Olympiacos, after already being eliminated, let Panathinaikos survive to become champion.
The other factor that convinces me is the personal pride on these teams. You had only to see 37-year-old Damir Mulaomerovic playing 34 minutes last week to help push KK Zagreb to its first victory after four losses by an average of 26.5 points. Or see 33-year-old Demond Mallet averaging a Euroleague career-high 19.8 points in attempts to keep Spirou in the hunt. Olimpija was hurt badly by the loss of its captain, Goran Jagodnik, to injury in the season opener, but will find inspiration with veteran survivors like Ratko Varda and Aleksandar Capin. Prokom has found a young star to rally around in Donatas Motiejunas. As for Zalgiris, with leaders like Robertas Javtokas and Marko Popovic, expect them to go to war with three of their last four games at home. Just remember, you read it here first.
Superstition ain't the way
Basketball fans are a superstitious lot. That's why these days in Belgrade, people are noticing parallels to the current Partizan team and the one that reached the Final Four two seasons ago. That 2009-10 team also dropped its first two regular season games, including one to Efes Pilsen, the same as Partizan did this season. Both years, however, Partizan won three of its next four, which helped make its homecourt a fortress for the rest of the season. The entire city of Belgrade channeled adoring support to underdog Partizan as it won eight of its last nine 2009-10 home games to make its first Final Four in a decade. Is the process repeating itself? Only time will tell, but it's safe to say that the atmosphere at Pionir Arean in Belgrade for the rest of the regular season will make visitors feel déjà vu.
And speaking of parallels, Maccabi Electra fans have to be liking the way their team is copying its path from last season. Maccabi lost on the road to open the 2010-11 season and then blasted off on a nine-game winning streak that led all the way to the title game at the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona. One year older and smarter, Maccabi again lost this season's opener, but has since strung together four victories to lead Group C, considered the toughest by many observors. That explains why those four victories were all by 10 or fewer points, compared to an average margin of almost 13 points during last season's nine-game streak. Also, after trying to avenge its only loss against EA7 Emporio Armani Milano tonight in Tel Aviv, Maccabi has three road games left, starting next week, against the same Partizan in Belgrade, where one superstition or another will be broken.
The remarkable debut so far of Unics Kazan, tied for second place at 4-2 in Group D, sent us scurrying to the record books to find out whether its 3-0 record on the road has ever been duplicated by a Euroleague newcomer. The answer, of course, is no. That made us wonder if any debut team has won three regular season road games total. And the answer to that is yes. The remarkable Lietuvos Rytas team of 2005-06 started its Euroleague experience with a pair of losses to Cibona and Milano before reeling off a string of seven consecutive victories that to this day remain remarkable. Four of those wins were on the road - at Barcelona, Efes Pilsen, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Milano - and against every team except Efes, Lietuvos Rytas scored 92 points or more. Barcelona and Maccabi that season were the last teams to have won the title, and both ended up in the Final Four again months later. A pair of current Zalgiris players, Robertas Javtokas and Tomas Delininkaitis, were on that ground-breaking Lietuvos Rytas team, while Simas Jasaitis is back in Vilnius this season and Matt Nielsen in Khimki, both playing in the Eurocup.
With its victory Wednesday at Montepaschi Siena, Unics added its own Final Four victim. Its next road game is at undefeated Barcelona, a tall order, indeed, but a win there would give it the chance, playing Union Olimpija in Ljublana in Week 10, to become the first Euroleague debutante to sweep all its road games in the regular season. All this is even more amazing if you consider that Unics has the longest road trips in the entire Euroleague. Much was made when Unics won the Eurocup to qualify for the Euroleague that visiting teams would have it tough because of the distance to Kazan. The flip-side of that, of course, is that Kazan has to make five trips that long. Having been successful on the first three of those trips, Unics is close to qualifying for the Top 16 and becoming happy tourists for another couple of months, at least. Kudos to head coach Evgeniy Pashutin and his team!
Blasts from the past
A couple of names that floated onto the radar screen these days have some of us whose Euroleague history started in 2000 remembering fondly that special season that opened the century.
First came the announcement that Saulius Stombergas was promoted to assistant coach at Zalgiris Kaunas, with whom he won the only Euroleague title in Lithuanian history back in 1999. Two seasons later, Stombergas was with the Tau Ceramica team that took the Euroleague by storm and forced the first five-game playoff series in European basketball history to its limit. To get to that point, however, Tau needed an extraordinary performance that still ranks as the top long-range shooting show of the century. Stombergas hit 9 of 9 three-pointers in the playoff semifinals against AEK Athens. Two other players, Mirza Teletovic of the same Tau Ceramica and Thomas Kelati of Unicaja, have also hit 9 three-pointers in one game, but they needed 13 and 19 attempts, respectively, to make so many. Stombergas, on the other hand, was simply perfect. His 39 points that night still rank among the best 10 scoring performances of the century. None of the others, however, happened so late in the season, with so much on the line.
One of his teammates that season, Elmer Bennett, will be honored in a pre-game ceremony before Caja Laboral - the new name for Tau Ceramica - hosts Fenerbahce Ulker on Thursday night. The fans in Vitoria, Spain will have nothing but great memories of how Bennett steered their club into the Euroleague elite, where it has remained ever since, back in 2000-01. He had 13 assists, the third-highest total in Euroleague history, on the night that Stombergas scored his 39 points, but it was his role in the five-game finals against Kinder Bologna that cemented Bennett's place in the minds of fans in Vitoria and beyond. Bennett played more minutes than anyone in that series, almost 39 per game, and was the second-best player statistically - with the most assists, second-most points and steals, and third-highest index rating - in a series that also featured such stars as Manu Ginobili, Antoine Rigaudeau, Marko Jaric, Luis Scola, David Andersen and Fabricio Oberto, most in their prime. Bennett was by far the top scorer and top-rated player in Game 4 and Game 5 of the series. Even though Tau lost the deciding game to Kinder in Bologna, his unwavering leadership in that series made a lasting impression on the court, just as his unwavering professionalism did off the court.
Bennet and Stombergas made a classic combo. It makes you wish it was Zalgiris visiting Caja Laboral tonight so we could see them together - and remember Elmer passing to Saulius for the three! - one more time.
Frank Lawlor -Euroleague.net
Thursday, November 24, 2011